Aspen Film hires interim executive director to replace Thew

John Thew
Courtesy Photo |

Aspen Film has hired real estate broker and film producer Elexa Ruth as interim executive director to replace John Thew at the top of the nonprofit organization responsible for three annual Aspen festivals.

Ruth’s hiring marks the fifth leadership change at the helm of Aspen Film since 2010.

Board President Lee Rittvo declined to comment Thursday specifically on Thew’s status with Aspen Film. Thew also declined to comment.

“She has significant festival, filmmaking and production experiences,” Rittvo said of Ruth. “We are excited about the enormous possibilities of working with her.”

Ruth, a broker with Compass Aspen, has served on Aspen Film’s board of trustees since December 2015. After graduating from Tulane University in 2011, she went to work in the film business in Los Angeles. Last year, she co-produced Mel Gibson’s Oscar-nominated “Hacksaw Ridge” and Nicolas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon.”

Thew took over the top post at Aspen Film in 2015 from husband-and-wife team George Eldred and Laura Thielen, who had been serving Aspen Film in various roles for 20 years and raised its national profile immensely over those two decades. The pair shared the executive director’s duties — the business side of it — from October 2013 to their spring 2015 retirement.

Thielen also served as executive director from 1995 to 2010. Since then, no executive director’s tenure has reached two years, including Thielen and Eldred’s run and the tenures of Robyn Myler, Kip Hubbard and Thew.

Rittvo credited the frequent leadership changes to the nature of running a small organization that produces three festivals annually.

“It’s a hard job and a demanding job and it’s hard to find the right person,” she said. “They need a breadth of skill that I don’t think many people have, from finance to film production.”

Eldred and Thielen, she added, have a rare combination of skills that are hard to match.

“Laura and George put in an amazing map to follow, but not everybody is capable of following it,” Rittvo said.

The first year of Thew’s tenure, which began in May 2015, saw a rapid turnover of five employees and six board members. Last summer, he credited that exodus to a standard shakeup that comes with a new leader.

“Whenever there’s new leadership in an organization, there’s a shift,” he told The Aspen Times last July.

But staffing issues appear to have persisted. The only two full-time staffers remaining under Thew left the organization after Aspen Shortsfest wrapped in April. The pair returned to the Aspen Film office last week as its only employees. Ruth joined them Tuesday. Two years ago, Aspen Film reported employing seven full-time employees.

Since the departure of artistic director Maggie Mackay a year ago, Aspen Film has used freelance programmers for each of its festivals. Rittvo said she hopes to continue working with Rachel Chanoff, a guest programmer who headed Aspen Filmfest in the fall, and Jane Schoettle, who programmed Academy Screenings in December, along with their creative teams. Aspen Film has been using a national public relations firm, BWR, since last summer — they’d used locally based communications professionals and Aspen Film staffers for most of its 38-year history in Aspen.

This most recent leadership shakeup at Aspen Film follows a well-received and well-attended Aspen Shortsfest last month, featuring 64 short films from more than 30 countries programmed by freelancer Kathleen McInnis. Any organizational tumult doesn’t appear to have impacted Aspen Film’s recent track record on the big screen.

“We are shooting for the stars and not stopping along the way,” Rittvo said.

Financially, the organization has been on an upward trajectory since some post-recession stumbles. Tax records show that Aspen Film ran a deficit of more than $100,000 in 2011 and 2012, but that it rebounded into the black in the following two years. The most recent filing, from 2015, shows the nonprofit took in more than $900,000 in revenue and spent about $750,000. The nonprofit has stayed in the black through its most recent cycle of festivals, according to Rittvo, who said it remains on solid footing.

Implementation of a long-term strategic plan, spearheaded by Thew last summer to stimulate Aspen Film’s fundraising, memberships, grants and ticket revenue, has been paused.

“The strategic plan is on hold now because we need to have people in place to decide whether to move forward with it,” Rittvo said.

Rittvo said that the nonprofit already is planning and programming the 39th Aspen Filmfest, scheduled for early October, and that it will again be partnering with the Aspen Institute for its summertime New Views documentary series, while also hosting the monthly Indie Showcase at the Isis Theater.


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